The Centralia Panthers brought home their second Class 3A state championship trophy of the school year on Friday, becoming only the fourth team in Missouri to capture state championship titles in football and basketball in the same school year.
The Panthers not only made history, they made a small town beam with pride.
On Saturday morning, support for the high school team was reflected on cars, store windows and black-and-white flags along downtown streets.
After winning the championship at the Hearnes Center, the basketball team was escorted by police into downtown Centralia. On Saturday morning, Panther flags still lined the streets, and store windows were painted with signs such as “Way to go Panthers!” and “We Did It!”
Mary Johannsen, owner of Allen’s Street Diner, couldn’t go to the game because she had to work but stood outside her restaurant and cheered the team as they made their winning tour through town.
“I feel good for them,” she said Saturday morning, wearing a Panthers shirt. “They make us proud.”
To make it to the mid-afternoon games on Thursday and Friday, most of the town’s businesses posted “closed” signs. There was no school either day.
“I think the town is almost more excited than the kids are,” said Darren Adams, 24, who was raised in Centralia and works at a local real estate business.
There are 12 seniors on the team, and the players — most of whom played on the championship football team, too — have become role models for the community.
“I’d say that I’d like to see my boys grow up like the players,” said Donna Ford, wife of the school principal. “They are the type of kids you want to see succeed.”
Vera Ridgeway, whose nephew is Justin Armontrout — a starting guard, said the players are “a tremendous credit to the school, the families, the town and themselves, even.”
Erle Bennett, the football coach who led the team to the state championship title last fall, said the dual championships have been “a rallying point for the community, especially with the economic problems.”
Centralia has seen the loss of manufacturing jobs in the past several years, including layoffs at A.B. Chance, one of the main industries in town.
Even if they aren’t sports fanatics, Centralia residents find unity in their community through the school.
“I don’t care anything about sports,” Marjorie McBride said while sitting with her friends at McDonald’s, admitting that she was anxious to learn whether the team won or lost.
Centralia does not have a large student body from which to draw talented athletes, but the championship teams have relied on their long-standing relationships to forge a close-knit team.
“They’ve been together all their lives; you can go to the city park and you’ll see four of the starters playing basketball,” Darren Adams said. “Everyone seems to know exactly what their roles are and they stick to it.”
Principal Darin Ford called the players “the epitome of a team. There’s no jealousy,” he said. “They pass to each other and don’t think past winning as a team.”
Bill Miller, tax manager for Hubbell Power Systems, was born and raised in Centralia. He came back from Los Angeles and raised his children in the town of 3,774.
“In smaller communities kids will try things that they might not in bigger schools,” he said.
His son was small in high school but played football anyway, Miller said, adding that his son probably would not have stayed with the sport — or even tried it — at a larger school.
Most of the Panther seniors are looking now toward spring. As soon as the team beat Maryville on Friday to win the state championship, they began chanting, “Now it’s baseball.”